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Suburban - N.J. Counseling Program for Veterans in Funding Limbo

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Location: Washington, DC

By GREG BEAN

I am writing this column on Friday, May 3, and it should be published in this week's editions of Greater Media Newspapers, which will be online Wednesday, May 8. In that five-day period, if averages hold, five active duty military members (one a day) and 110 veterans of various wars (22 a day) will have taken their own lives.

In 2012 alone, there were 349 suicides among active-duty military, exceeding by 54 the number of soldiers killed that year in Afghanistan. In that same time period, there were about 8,000 suicides among non-activeduty veterans. How many other lives have been devastated? How many wives, and parents, and children and friends? And the butcher's bill keeps adding up, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. The numbers are staggering -- a national epidemic, and a national disgrace.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, with backlogs of requests for even the most basic services that can mean long months, or even years of waiting, and broken promises for veterans in need is admittedly overwhelmed and failing miserably in its mandated task of counseling at-risk vets and slowing the horrific tally of those who die because of wounds to their very souls.

So it is falling to independent, community based organizations like the successful Vets4Warriors program in Piscataway to fulfill some of the promises our nation made to the men and women it sent off to war -- and now that program is threatened once again by a potential loss of funding.

I've written about Vets4Warriors -- a national program serving National Guard and Reserve veterans -- several times in the past. And longtime readers know of the involvement of my wife and me in supporting this lifesaving effort, as we did its predecessor, Vets2Vets, after our son, Sgt. Coleman Bean, an Army veteran who had served two tours in Iraq, took his own life in 2008.

But for those of you who don't know about it, Vets4Warriors is a 24-hour peer-topeer counseling hotline (1-855-VET-TALK), which has taken 32,000 calls, and made 26,000 in the 16 months since its inception in 2011, according to Chris Kosseff, president and CEO of University Behavioral Health Care at UMDNJ, who oversees the program. That it has saved lives, perhaps hundreds of them, is unquestionable. Its $5 million per year funding, much of it spent on paying the 26 veteran peer counselors and outreach, comes from a $40 million increased funding appropriation largely shepherded by U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th District) and other like-minded members of Congress.

Of that $40 million, $20 million goes to the Department of Defense (DOD) for suicide prevention, specifically for National Guard and Reserve outreach, and $20 million goes to the Department of Veterans Affairs, also for suicide prevention and outreach. Thanks to a promise Sen. Frank Lautenberg obtained from the DOD to work with Vets4Warriors, its $5 million share of the $40 million funded by the National Guard Bureau through the DOD in 2012 and 2013 kept the program afloat. But because the $40 million appropriation must be approved by Congress every year, there is real concern that it could fall through the cracks in 2014, which would mean that Vets4Warriors would have to shut its hotline down. On April 17, Holt and about 100 other bipartisan members of the House of Representatives sent a signed letter to the ranking members of the House Appropriations Committee urging that the $40 million be included in the 2014 appropriation bills. That letter also was signed by New Jersey Reps. Frank Lo- Biondo, Bill Pascrell, Frank Pallone Jr. and Donald Payne Jr., and said, in part:

"We believe you have it within your power to dramatically reduce the number of such deaths [of veterans by suicide, 18 a day, 6,500 a year]. Providing funding for programs like New Jersey's Vets4Warriors program, which is the National Guard Bureau's highly successful national counseling and suicide prevention peer-to-peer outreach program, will help save lives."

Despite the fact that the letter had so many signers from both parties, and the issue so much congressional support, Holt and others are worried. "I have reason to believe the appropriations process won't go well this year, and a lot of things that should be funded won't be," Holt said. "I want to make sure this isn't one of those things that doesn't get funded."

To that end, Holt and Rep. Jon Runyan (R- 3rd District) held a press conference at the state World War II Memorial April 30 in an effort to keep the issue in the public eye in advance of the Appropriations Committee's decision.

Of Vets4Warriors, Holt said, "It's the best -- perhaps, the only -- program I know that confronts the problem in the right way. We have to go to where the soldiers and veterans are and make sure they are not alone."

Runyan echoed Holt's assessment of the peer-to-peer counseling program, noting, "It shouldn't be a heavy lift" to obtain the funding.

My wife, Linda Bean, also spoke at that press conference, as she has done at many similar events and hearings over the last few years. "Soldiers, veterans and their families need this program,'' she said. "This is the only program in the country designed to affirmatively reach out to Individual Ready Reservists. The amazing and courageous veterans [who man the Vets4Warriors hotline] answer about 500 calls daily. Of those callers, nearly 200 are at risk for suicide." At the conclusion of her remarks, she stressed the need for continued congressional appropriation. "As a nation, we ask the young people who join the armed forces never to leave a fallen brother. This is the program that makes that promise real," she said.

I couldn't have been prouder of them all.

As things stand at this moment, the last of 2013's $5 million will run out for Vets4Warriors in August, and Holt is pushing to see that it's funded for the rest of this year until the 2014 appropriation kicks in. Of course, the long-term fix is for President Obama to include Vets4Warriors as a line-item in future budgets, but that's another battle entirely.


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